Israel has become the world’s premier nondestination for the smugly self-righteous. Since 2006, there has been a movement to boycott Israeli academic institutions organized by a coalition of Palestinian groups, to which people like Bono and Stevie Wonder have lent support. The latest to join this list is renowned scientist Stephen Hawking, who recently announced that he had refused an invitation to attend the Israeli Presidential Conference in late June “based on advice from Palestinian academics that he should respect the boycott.” In a statement, Hawking added: “Had I attended, I would have stated my opinion that the policy of the present Israeli government is likely to lead to disaster.”
Hawking has written about multiple-universe theory, and it is possible that in some alternate world his action makes sense. But in this world it is a new example of an enduring, egregious hypocrisy. When the odd musician or writer ostracizes Israel, it is contemptible enough. But someone of Hawking’s stature and intellect should know that boycotts are antithetical to the ideal of open inquiry that animates the scientific enterprise.
Not that there aren’t times when ethics override the free exchange of ideas. Or perhaps Hawking just doesn’t believe in talking to people with whom he disagrees. Where then is his condemnatory statement about the treatment of the Maya people in Guatemala, the Tamils in Sri Lanka, the Kashmiris in India, the Kurds in Turkey, the Baha’i of Iran, the Shi‘ites of Pakistan, the Chechens in Russia or perhaps about the Tibetans in China, where Hawking recently paid a celebrated visit? Rather than actually confront the difficulties of the region, he is deploying his considerable prestige to say that one country, among all the nations of the world, is uniquely deserving of obloquy.
Then there is the question of what, exactly, standing up the Israeli Presidential Congress is going to achieve. As Hawking must know, he is boycotting precisely those most likely to agree with his political stance, the left-wing academic community in Israel. It’s hard to believe he endorses a theory that if he can make some academic conferences a tad less prestigious, peace will bloom.
If Hawking and his confederates believe in the efficacy of boycotts, as Jeffrey Goldberg has pointed out, the next logical step is to boycott supporters of Israel, including many Jewish-owned businesses, research facilities and institutions. It would even be ideologically consistent to boycott synagogues. Historical echoes, anyone?
I do not for a moment believe Hawking is anti-Semitic. Indeed, he visited Israel before, in 2006, when the situation was not significantly different. Still, when you step into a conflict-ridden world, look around and decide that the one place that is unworthy of your presence is the single Jewish state, your actions have an anti-Semitic cast no matter the purity of your intentions.
Israel will survive the slight, but every collapse of moral resolve takes a toll. You can object to the policies of the Israeli government and protest them and rail against them and seek to change them: many do, both in the U.S. and Israel. When only Israel is blackballed, however, when condemnations from the U.N. vastly outnumber those of all other nations combined, there is more going on than careful moral calculation. Hawking, perhaps unwittingly, has cast his lot with darkness, and not the kind you can spot with a telescope.